Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith
Matthew Lee Anderson
Bethany House Publishers, 2011
256 pp., 46.99
To those Christians who say, "But I want a physical sign of my faith on my body. That's why I tattoo," Anderson points out that we already have a physical sign of our faith put on our bodies: baptism. He writes: "Raise the question of tattoos among a group of lifetime Evangelicals, and eventually someone will point out that their ink has been a 'conversation starter' with a non-believer. Where baptism is a confirmation of our entry into the community of Christians, tattoos inaugurate a kingdom of searching." While that final phrase—"a kingdom of searching"—is overstated, Anderson does young evangelicals a great service by reminding them of the physicality of the sacraments and emphasizing their centrality to our identity.
To be clear, Anderson stops short of saying that all tattooing is wrong. Rather, he simply points out that the issue of tattooing can be a useful litmus test for how we think about the body. The acceptance of tattoos by younger evangelicals, according to Anderson, does suggest a certain lack of theological reflection on the meaning of tattoos as well as a limited embrace of the technocratic view previously described.
Pushing back against those trends, Anderson reminds readers that all our thought about the body must be reconciled with what we believe Christianity tells us about the world: Our bodies are not our own to modify or "enhance" in any way we see fit. Rather, we present our bodies to Christ as part of our salvation. This doesn't necessarily preclude all forms of tattooing, but it does mean that some other logic is necessary for their justification beyond that of the aesthetic technician. The tattoo chapter shows Anderson at his best: the conservative provocateur—in the best possible sense of the term—with a talent for asking the right questions in order to reset a bogged-down debate. But Earthen Vessels is not without its flaws.
Most notably, there are times when Earthen Vessels feels like two different books or perhaps a collection of blog posts. The opening discussion of the body as brother ass versus the body as technocratic device doesn't always seem tied to the topical essays that follow. The result is that the book feels split between an interesting but incomplete theological reflection on the body and a miscellaneous collection of essays on specific questions. This is largely because it's not always clear what Anderson is trying to accomplish in the topical essays. Given the opening discussion, it seems that the best route is the one adopted in his discussion of tattoos: Apply the categories of "body as brother ass" and "body as technocratic device" to each issue. That would give the book a more unified structure, making it easier for readers to follow his arguments.
But that structure is seldom explicit in the topical chapters. As a result, the topical essays wander at times and Anderson sometimes loses the plot. The content is solid, but it feels more sermonic than the beginning of the book and lacks the sophistication of the opening chapters. Anyone can write an essay stating an opinion regarding sexuality, video preaching, or the spiritual disciplines. What Anderson offers on a regular basis at Mere Orthodoxy is more than that. While his opinions are seldom in doubt, one can disagree with the opinion and still come away from an essay of his feeling instructed and helped. But in some of the topical chapters here, that spark is missing, and it's replaced by a sermonic tone that favors clever turns of phrase over more precise argumentation (as in the "kingdom of searching" quotation cited above).
The strengths of Earthen Vessels outweigh its shortcomings. Anderson is a generalist, so those looking for an evangelical equivalent to Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body will not find it here. But if they are looking for an evangelical Christopher West—the gifted popularizer of John Paul's views—they will not be disappointed. What West has done for John Paul II, Anderson seems primed to do for Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender and Anglican ethicist Oliver O'Donovan. It's in these aspects—a generalist approach, accessibility, clarity of thought, and popular appeal—that Anderson's book will be most helpful.
Jake Meador is a writer and editor living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with an emphasis in African history. He blogs about African politics, history, religion, and other topics at Notes from a Small Place.
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